It’s a rare moment when we don’t experience an emotion. But is it based in fact, or is it just a reaction (right or wrong) to some stimulus around us? When you experience an emotion, it’s important to identify it – but it’s equally important to not blame the cause of the emotion on some person or thing. In other words: Don’t say, “I’m depressed because I didn’t get the job I wanted.” Instead say, “I’m depressed because of the thoughts I’m having after the job letdown.” Or, don’t say, “I’m hurt because of what Larry said or did.” Instead say: “I’m hurt because of the thoughts I have about what Larry said or did.” Bottom line, it’s your thoughts that are causing the emotion.
For example, “This computer won’t work. I’m so upset!” But what’s really going on? Your computer stops working and you start having split-second thoughts, so quickly you don’t even know what they are, so the emotional states we call “anger” or “frustration” sum those thoughts up for you. But are those feelings accurate? Your actions can take one of two paths: If your thoughts are, “This computer will not work, I have no reasonable way to fix it, it’s a catastrophe and everything is ruined,” then you will have an emotional reaction like anger or rage. On the other hand, if your thoughts are, “I’m sure there’s an explanation; if it’s simple, I will fix it quickly; if it’s not, I can find the help to take care of this,” then you’ll have a much calmer reaction. Yes, you’re still annoyed, but your blood pressure will not rise as high.
Emotions do not come out of nowhere. They happen because of the way we’re in the habit of thinking. This is how human psychology works. Everyone may have different personality traits or temperaments, but the fundamentals are the same. When you identify your thoughts/beliefs as the cause of your emotions, you’re placing the solution within reach and not allowing yourself to be a victim.
The same goes for anger or hurt towards another person. “I’m mad because of Jennifer.” That gives all the power to Jennifer. Instead, you could say, “I’m angry at Jennifer because she did something wrong.” Maybe she did. And maybe you’re right to hold her accountable. But the emotion of anger is really your own. Same goes for the news: “I’m so depressed after watching or reading the news. There’s nothing I can do.” Did the news make you feel that way? No, not really. It was the way you interpreted the news. If you believe that everything is bad, that there are no good people, and there’s nothing good anyone can do about it, then you will have a purely negative – like your thoughts – reaction to the news.
In a certain sense, we are what we feel. Our emotions define us. But emotions, in turn, are created by what we think. What we think includes what we assume, believe, reason out, fail to reason out and say – or not say – to ourselves. The best way to control or “own” your emotions is to know their source. Emotions do not need control as much as they need reason. Self-control comes from reason — specifically, your own reasoning applied to your emotions.
The essence of mental health is serenity. Knowing the content of your emotions, and how to reason with them is the root of serenity, as well as everything else that makes life worth living, such as romantic love, career fulfillment, productive purpose, hobbies, etc. So watch over your feelings and emotions, and identify what beliefs or ideas you have that brought them about. Life will get a whole lot easier.
Michael J. Hurd, Daily Dose of Reason